In his first year at University of California, Berkeley, Gagan Biyani watched the attendance rate in a general education class dwindle every day. But the students, he learned, weren't dropping out.
After asking around, Biyani found out that he could listen to the lectures via the Internet from the convenience of the home he was renting at the time.
"You didn't have to go to class," he recalled. "You could just wake up and watch the webcast. Ironically enough, I think the class was 'Introduction to Computers.'"
His introduction to that virtual learning environment back in 2005 set Biyani on a course to become the co-founder and president of Udemy, a website launched Tuesday, May 11, that allows anyone, anywhere to teach and learn online for free.
As part of the universal trend to use the Web as a platform for instruction, Udemy aims to democratize online education by allowing users to post videos, presentations, blogs and host live virtual classroom sessions.
Users can subscribe to courses, participate in forums and publish links to courses on Twitter and Facebook. With the live virtual classroom feature, as many as 10 instructors can host live video conferences, and more than 1,000 people can log on to watch the streaming sessions.
"The Internet is a democratizing force," Biyani said. "You can actually eliminate barriers to entry and provide anybody with access to education through technology."
Biyani co-founded the company in February with Eren Bali and Oktay Caglar, two software developers from Turkey who developed and built the learning platform. The three founders plan to keep the website free of advertisements. The courses are available at no cost, but Biyani said teachers will have the option to charge for their online courses.
"If teachers want to make money," he said, "we'll help them make money and we'll take a percentage off whatever they make."
Unlike the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare (OCW) and other universities that publish course content online, Udemy is not open source, Biyani said. The site does use courses from such institutions, but Udemy's primary goal is to enable teachers to create their own courses and videos on various topics. Current featured courses include "How to Start a Company," "Advanced Adobe Photoshop Techniques" and "Introduction to Poker (Phase I)."
In the future, Biyani hopes to partner with universities to provide general education credits through distance learning. He isn't completely opposed to learning in a physical classroom and in-person interaction with college professors. But at least for general education courses, he believes the Web is the way to go.
"Don't get me wrong, I think the classroom is fantastic," he said. "But government funding is going down for education. We would save a lot of money in higher education if we moved our general education classes online."